Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Salvo magazine has an interesting piece by ID advocate Casey Luskin on Biomimetics, the application of nature's designs to technological innovation. It's amazing how many of our modern technological marvels were inspired by studying how nature solves certain problems.

One might think that this should be considered evidence that nature is designed since if intelligent agents like human beings couldn't hit upon these solutions by themselves how could random chance and genetic mutations discover them, but, of course, you shouldn't think like that. We know that exquisite designs are the product of purely natural, unguided, blind forces because those are the only kinds of forces there are, and we know they're the only forces there are because we can explain every exquisite design in terms of them.

If you're concerned that this sounds like circular reasoning then you're insufficiently steeped in the wisdom of people like Richard Dawkins and other materialist illuminati.

Anyway, Luskin lists a number of examples of biomimetic advances (there are many more):
  • Faster Speedo swimsuits have been developed by studying the properties of sharkskin.
  • Spiny hooks on plant seeds and fruits led to the development of Velcro.
  • Better tire treads were created by understanding the shape of toe pads on tree frogs.
  • Polar bear furs have inspired textiles and thermal collectors.
  • Studying hippo sweat promises to lead to better sunscreen.
  • Volvo has studied how locusts swarm without crashing into one another to develop an anti-collision system.
  • Mimicking mechanisms of photosynthesis and chemical energy conversion might lead to the creation of cheaper solar cells.
  • Copying the structure of sticky gecko feet could lead to the development of tape with cleaner and dryer super-adhesion.
  • Color-changing cuttlefish have inspired television screens that use a fraction of the power of standard TVs.
  • DNA might become a framework for building faster microchips.
  • The ability of the human ear to pick up many frequencies of sound is being replicated to build better antennas.
  • The Namibian fog-­basking beetle has inspired methods of desalinizing ocean water, growing crops, and producing electricity, all in one!
  • Airplane design flowed from studying the body shapes of birds.
One of the arguments against using biomimetics as an indicator of intelligent agency behind the designs in nature is that nature too often presents us with poor design. It's hard to see, though, how this is an argument against an intelligent designer. After all poor design is still design. No one would think that because a particular automobile design was flawed that therefore it must not have been designed by intelligent agents.

Flawed design might be an argument against postulating that the designer is the omnipotent, omniscient God of Christianity, but intelligent design doesn't say that the designer is God. It simply says that there's powerful evidence that the universe and life have been designed by an intelligent agent. That's a scientific conclusion. The scientific critic who wishes to discredit ID by pointing out that an omniscient God wouldn't design things the way nature has is making a religious argument about how God would act, which is an odd thing for a scientific person to do.

One of the examples the critic uses to buttress the claim that living things are often poorly designed is the human eye, but Luskin replies that this is an unfortunate choice inasmuch as the eye, it has turned out, may very well have an optimal design. Luskin writes:
Some materialists attack design arguments not by alleging that biological systems lack high levels of specified complexity, but by alleging that they are full of "flaws." Yet anyone who has used Microsoft Windows is painfully aware that flawed designs are still designed. But theistic evolutionist biologist Kenneth Miller argues that evolution would naturally lead us to expect the biological world to be full of "cobbled together" kluges that reflect the clumsy, undirected Darwinian process.

For example, Miller maintains that the vertebrate eye was not intelligently designed because the optic nerve extends over the retina instead of going out the back of the eye—an alleged design flaw. According to Miller, "visual quality is degraded because light scatters as it passes through several layers of cellular wiring before reaching the retina."

Similarly, Richard Dawkins contends that the retina is "wired in backwards" because light-sensitive cells face away from the incoming light, which is partly blocked by the optic nerve. In Dawkins's ever-humble opinion, the vertebrate eye is "the design of a complete idiot."

A closer examination shows that the design of the vertebrate eye works far better than Dawkins and Miller let on.

Dawkins concedes that the optic nerve's impact on vision is "probably not much," but the negative effect is even less than he admits. Only if you cover one eye and stare directly at a fixed point does a tiny "blind spot" appear in your peripheral vision as a result of the optic nerve covering the retina. When both eyes are functional, the brain compensates for the blind spot by meshing the visual fields of both eyes. Under normal circumstances, the nerves' wiring does nothing to hinder vision.

Nonetheless, Dawkins argues that even if the design works, it would "offend any tidy-minded engineer." But the overall design of the eye actually optimizes visual acuity.

To achieve the high-quality vision that vertebrates need, retinal cells require a large blood supply. By facing the photoreceptor cells toward the back of the retina, and extending the optic nerve out over them, the cells are able to plug directly into the blood vessels that feed the eye, maximizing access to blood.

Pro-ID biologist George Ayoub suggests a thought experiment where the optic nerve goes out the back of the retina, the way Miller and Dawkins claim it ought to be wired. Ayoub finds that this design would interfere with blood supply, as the nerve would crowd out blood vessels. In this case, the only means of restoring blood supply would be to place capillaries over the retina—but this change would block even more light than the optic nerve does under the actual design.

Ayoub concludes: "In trying to eliminate the blind spot, we have generated a host of new and more severe functional problems to solve."

In 2010, two eye specialists made a remarkable discovery that showed the elegant mechanism found in vertebrate eyes to solve the problem of any blockage of light due to the position of the optic nerve. Special "glial cells" sit over the retina and act like fiber-optic cables to channel light through the optic nerve wires directly onto the photoreceptor cells. According to New Scientist, these funnel-shaped cells prevent scattering of light and "act as light filters, keeping images clear."

Ken Miller acknowledges that an intelligent designer "would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality." Yet that seems to be exactly what we find in the vertebrate eye. In fact, the team of scientists who determined the function of glial cells concluded that the "retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images."

ID-theorist William Dembski has observed that "no one has demonstrated how the eye's function might be improved without diminishing its visual speed, sensitivity, and resolution."
Luskin writes a good piece that should be perused by anyone interested in the arguments for ID.